Review: Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew

Hans Boersma, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsityPress, 2021).


The idea behind this book is good. The author is right to say that no one approaches the biblical text without a prior commitment to metaphysics. Nevertheless, one regularly finds evangelical Bible interpreters (not a few of them in the Biblical Studies guild) who seek to interpret the Bible without any reference to metaphysics. We can only smile with amusement when someone says, “If you would just stay committed to the Bible, you would believe as I do.”

Let us briefly define some basic terms:

  • Metaphysics is the “branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space” (Oxford American Dictionary).
  • ontology is that “branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being (ibid).

Everyone has views, implicit or explicit, about these things. The Bible expects us to know something about the world around us in order understand Scripture.

The Good

The chapters on metaphysics and heaven are the strongest in the volume. The Scriptures are God’s Word but we may not simply appeal to the Bible without getting to grips with metaphysics because we all come to the Scripture with metaphysical commitments. E.g., if Christ is present in the Old Testament, as the Reformed say, then some form of a sensus plenior (i.e., a fuller sense of the text, which is embedded in the text itself) obtains. This seems to be unavoidable.

The book has a good section on Athanasius. The author does not seem to realize, however, that Athanasius’ Christology undercuts Plato’s cosmology. If the Son is true God, then we do not have a Demiurge creating the world.

His chapter on metaphysics is excellent. His argument, though, might be inadequate. Key to the Platonic framework is the idea of “participation.” What does that actually mean? I’m not sure. Boersma never defines it. Aristotle, too, pointed out that ambiguity in Plato. It seems Platonism is simply a stand-in for Augustinianism and realism. I have no problem with that. He identifies 5 aspects of Ur-Platonism: 1) anti-materialism, 2) anti-mechanism, 3) anti-nominalism; 4) Anti-relativism, and 5) Anti-skepticism. On one hand this sounds like basic Christian wisdom. True, you find all of this in one form or another in Plato’s dialogues. But must it be called Platonism? Are we not leaving out other key aspects of Platonism?

In a throwaway line that must have had the Revoice guys in mind, Boersma (rightly) says our that primary identity is in Christ, not in some made-up social identity (which also applies, mutatis mutandis, to other post-Marxist constructs).

The chapter on heaven is excellent. He puts a halt on many silly “anti-imperial” readings. He notes that their (often shrill) us vs. them rhetoric is the very violence they seek to oppose. In fact, he specifically calls out left-wing agendas, noting they treat sin and redemption in this–worldly structures. Moreover, something like the Beatific Vision is present in historic Christian reflection. Whatever else is true about the New Heavens and New Earth, we must retain the basic structure of the Beatific Vision.

The Bad

We will start with the most obvious problem: allegory. His section on typology was helpful but unfortunately he does not like the contrast between typology and allegory. The former links to history. The latter connects history to some eternal archetype. What matters for him is allegory. Here is one problem: why even bother with the original languages, with redemptive history (e.g., the Old Testament redemptive narratives) if the text is allegorical? The fatal All that matters is the “deeper meaning.” This is the fatal flaw in all allegorical schemes.

Very little of Israel’s story has anything to do with Plato. There is nothing Platonic about the Exodus, the Temple, or the Atonement. All of that is far too earthy and material for Plato. There is also nothing Platonic about the New Jerusalem descending to earth.

Following upon that point, what criteria does Boersma have for saying “this deeper reading” is wrong while the other one is correct?

There are other problems. He claimed that Charles Hodge was a nominalist. He said Nevin chose Plato and the Great Tradition while Hodge chose Francis Bacon. This is incorrect. Nevin chose German Idealism, not Plato. Further, this seems like an untenable reading of Hodge.

There is vagueness that weakens seriously his argument. E.g., he never defines biblical theology. At times it means “bad academics” and at other times it means “sola scriptura.” Even worse, he never defines sola scriptura.

Unfortunately, much of Boersma’s discussion trades on ambiguities and straw men and thus, though I recommend other books by Boersma, I do not recommend this one.

This review is adapted and revised from the author’s blog, The Tents of Shem.

©Jacob Aitken. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Jacob,
    I am a bit confused by your concluding sentence–do you mean to endorse or not endorse this text? I got the impression you did NOT mean to recommend it when you said, “Unfortunately, much of Boersma’s discussion trades on ambiguities and straw men and thus, though I recommend other books by Boersma.” (My internal nazi grammarian points out this is an incomplete sentence) But then you add, ” I do recommend this one.” Do you mean to say you do NOT recommend it? Thank you.
    Mark Gring

    • I just read your version of this review at The typos in this one are certainly already cleaned up over there. Thanks. You have some additional (?) items here that add to your explanation–helpful.

      I am a bit confused, still, about your claims regarding Plato and his lack of interest in the material reality (loosely paraphrased). Maybe I am already influenced by Craig Carter (Contemplating God with the Great Tradition), Drozdek (Greek Philosophers as Theologians), Cornford (From Philosophy to Religion), and works by a few of those who argue for some aspect of Radical Orthodoxy (Milbank, Tyson, James K.A. Smith, etc) and I am already reinterpreting Plato from a Christian perspective, but I do not see Plato as anti-materialistic. Yes, our anti-metaphysical modernist framework for interpreting Plato privileges the ideal over the material–but that is OUR framework and not necessarily Plato’s. Almost each semester for the last 10+ years I have taught undergraduate and graduate classes in rhetorical theory. Each semester we read through works by several presocratics, Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Agustine’s On Christian Doctrine, among other books. In reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus I see a strong metaphysical emphasis but in Plato’s Gorgias he argues several times for the need to have a physical punishment that helps to cleanse the soul. This seems to reveal a close tie of the physical with the “ideal” and metaphysical. Even in Plato’s Republic, book VII, the allegory of the cave section we see the line of division between the shadows in the cave and the reality that exists outside the cave–but it does not make the shadows (or any of the other objects carried by those who walk the pathway between the fire and the shadows cast on the wall, any less real or any less connected to the real items (of a similar kind) that exist outside the cave.
      So, please help me to see how Boersma (and others?) have this wrong. I do not see how he got this part of his argument wrong.
      Thank you for your time. Apologies for the length of the post–I felt I needed to support my claims to some extent.

    • Mark,

      The typos in the copy are my fault (rsc). If you refresh your browser/cache the copy be cleaner. He meant to write, “I do not recommend this one.”

    • Hi Mark. Apologies for the ambiguity in the last sentence. I enjoyed Boersma’s book on hospitality and the cross. I thought Scripture as Real Presence had some profound readings of Athanasius. This book, though, is not at that level. If someone wanted a better sampling of Boersma, I would go with those books instead.

    • I don’t think Boersma has Plato wrong. I don’t think he has given the full reading of Plato. I guess the standard criticism of Plato on the goodness of materiality would be his referring to the body as “soma sema.” That’s hard to square with Genesis 1. There is also the issue of the resurrection of the body.

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